In Memoriam Rev. John Rausch (1945-2020)

Peggy and I were shocked Sunday night when we received the stunning news that Fr. John Rausch, a very dear friend of ours, had died suddenly earlier in the day. John was a Glenmary priest whom we had known for years. He was 75 years old.

At one point, John lived in a log cabin below our property in Berea, Kentucky. So, we often found ourselves having supper with him there or up at our place. John was a gourmet cook. And part of having meals with him always involved watching his kitchen wizardry while imbibing Manhattans and catching up on news – personal, local, national, and international. Everything was always interspersed with jokes and laughter.

That’s the kind of man John was. He was a citizen of the world, an economist, environmentalist, prolific author, raconteur, and social justice warrior. But above all, John was a great priest and an even better human being full of joy, love, hope, fun, and optimism.

Yes, it was as a priest that John excelled. Everyone who knew him, especially in the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, would agree to that. Ordained in 1972 [just seven years after the closure Vatican II (1962-’65)] John never wavered in his embrace of the Church’s change of direction represented by the Council’s reforms.

According to the spirit of Vatican II, the Church was to open its windows to the world, to adopt a servant’s position, and to recognize Jesus’ preferential option for the poor.  John loved that. He was especially fervent in endorsing Pope Francis’ extension of the option for the poor to include defense of the natural environment as explained in the pope’s eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’. (To get a sense of John’s concept of priesthood and care for the earth, watch this al-Jazeera interview that appeared on cable TV five years ago.)

His progressive theology delighted John’s audiences who accepted the fact that Vatican II remains the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. So, as two successive reactionary popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) subtly attempted to reverse conciliar reforms, and as the restorationist priests and bishops they cultivated tried mightily to turn back the clock, John’s insistence on the new orthodoxy was entirely refreshing.

I remember greatly admiring the shape of John’s homilies that (in the spirit of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium) were always well-prepared and followed the same pattern:

  1. He’d begin with two or three seemingly unrelated vignettes involving ordinary people with names and usually living in impoverished Appalachian contexts.
  2. For the moment, he’d leave those word-pictures hanging in the air. (We were left wondering: “What does all that have to do with today’s readings?”)
  3. Then, on their own terms, John would explain the day’s liturgical readings inevitably related to the vignettes, since Jesus always addressed his teachings to the poor like those in John’s little stories.
  4. Finally, John would relieve his audience’s anxiety about connections by perfectly bringing the vignettes and the readings together – always ending with a pointed challenge to everyone present.

The result was invariably riveting, thought-provoking and inspiring. It was always a special day whenever Fr. John Rausch celebrated Mass in our church in Berea, Kentucky.

Nevertheless, John’s social justice orientation often did not resonate with those Catholics out-of-step with official church teaching. These often included the already mentioned restorationist priests and bishops who harkened back to the good old days before the 1960s. Restorationist parishioners sometimes reported Fr. Rausch to church authorities as “too political.”

But Fr. Rausch’s defense was impregnable. He was always able to appeal to what he called “the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church.” That was the way he described the radical social encyclicals of popes from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) through Pius XII’s Quadragesima Anno (1931), Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (1965), and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (2015).

John was fond of pointing out that all of those documents plus a host of others were consistently critical of capitalism. They favored the demands of working classes, including living wages, the right to form labor unions, and to go out on strike. Other documents were critical of arms races, nuclear weapons, and modern warfare in general. “You can’t get more political than that!” John would say with his broad smile.

All that perseverance on John’s part finally paid off when his local very conservative bishop was at length replaced by a Franciscan friar whom I’ve described elsewhere as “channeling Pope Francis.” I’m referring to John Stowe whose brown-robe heritage had evidently shielded him from the counter-reforms of the two reactionary popes previously mentioned.

When Bishop Stowe assumed office, he evidently recognized John as a kindred spirit. He respected his knowledge of Appalachia and his desire to connect Church social teachings with that context.  So, the new bishop asked John to take him on an introductory tour of the area. John was delighted to oblige. He gave Bishop Stowe the tour John himself had annually led for years. It included coal mines, the Red River Gorge, local businesses, co-ops, social service agencies, local churches, and much more. John became Bishop Stowe’s go-to man on issues involving those represented by the experience.

But none of that – not John’s firm grounding in church social teaching, not his success as a liturgist and homilist, not his acclaimed workshops on economics and social justice, not his long list of publications, nor his advisory position with Bishop Stowe – went to John’s head.

He never took himself that seriously. He was always quick with the self-deprecating joke or story.

In fact, he loved to tell the one about his short-lived movie career. (I’m not kidding.)  It included what he described as his “bedroom scene” with actress Ashley Judd. It occurred in the film, “Big Stone Gap.” I don’t remember how, but in some way, the film’s director needed a priest for a scene where Ms. Judd was so deathly ill that they needed to summon a member of the clergy. John was somehow handy. So, he fulfilled the cameo role playing himself at the bedside of Ashley Judd. (See for yourself here. You’ll find John credited as playing himself.) Right now, I find myself grinning as I recall John’s telling the tale. It always got a big laugh.

Other recollections of John Rausch include the facts that:

  • For a time, he directed the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.
  • He also worked with Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center (AMERC) introducing seminarians to the Appalachian context and its unique culture.
  • He published frequently in Catholic magazines and authored many editorials in the Lexington Herald-Leader. John’s regular syndicated columns reached more than a million people across the country. 
  • He had a strong hand in the authorship of the Appalachian bishops’ pastoral letter “At Home in the Web of Life.”
  • He led annual pilgrimages to what he called “the holy land” of Appalachia as well as similar experiences exploring the culture and history of the Cherokee Nation.
  • He was working on his autobiography when he died. (I was so looking forward to reading it!)

More Personally:

  • He graciously read, advised, and encouraged me on my own book about Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’.
  • I have fond memories of one Sunday afternoon when he invited me to a meeting in his living room with other local writers. We were to read a favorite selection from something each of us was working on.
  • John often came to my social justice related classes at Berea College to speak to students about Appalachia its problems, heroines and heroes. (Of course, to my mind, John ranked prominently among them.)
  • He gave a memorable presentation along those lines in the last class I taught in 2014. John was a splendid engaging teacher.

Peggy and I are still reeling from the unexpected news of this wonderful human being’s death. For the last day we’ve been sharing memories of John that are full of admiration, reverence, sadness – and smiles. It’s all a reminder of our own mortality and of the blessing of a quick, even sudden demise.

Along those lines, one strange thought that, for some reason, keeps recurring to me is that John’s passing (along with that of another dear friend last month) somehow gives me (and John’s other friends) permission to die.

I don’t know what to make of that. It might simply be that the two men in question (like Jesus himself) have gone before us and shown the way leading to a new fuller form of life. Somehow, that very fact makes the prospect of leaving easier. Don’t ask me to explain why or how.

Thank you, John.   

Lexington (KY) Bishop Questions Catholic Support of Donald Trump: He’s Brutally Vilified

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 1:4-5, 17-19; PS 7:1-6, 15-17; I COR 12:31-13:13; LK 4:21-30

Last week, the bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, profoundly sharpened the recent controversy involving a student from Covington Catholic High School who confronted a Native American elder after this year’s pro-life march in Washington, D.C.

Writing an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Bishop John Stowe attempted to deepen the entire conversation. He suggested changing it from superficial wrangling about the apparent disrespect the student displayed to a discussion of whether or not Catholics can support the current occupant of the White House and still be true to their faith.

Bishop Stowe said “no.” It’s a matter of faith, he said.

By taking that position, the Lexington bishop created what I would call a much-needed Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment for the church at a time when Mr. Trump exhibits traits and policies reminiscent of Adolf Hitler during his rise to power in the 1930s. (In the name of their faith, Bonhoeffer and members of his Confessing Church separated themselves from German Christians who supported der Fuhrer.)

The bishop’s words also incurred the wrath of Catholic Trump supporters much as Jesus in today’s Gospel selection sparked anger in his own hometown when he called his neighbors’ faith into question.

Let me explain.

First, recall the context of the bishop’s words. Then connect them to our reading and finally to Bonhoeffer and his church of resistance.  

As for context, a video of the stand-off between the high school student, Nick Sandman and the Native American, Nathan Phillips, had just gone viral. Initial viewings led many to condemn the student’s apparent disrespect.

Then, Sandman’s parents hired a P.R. firm to spin his side of the story. As a result, public commentary quickly changed from blaming the adolescent for his apparently offensive smirk. It centered instead on whose version of the story was correct. Was the student (as the PR firm put it) merely smiling in an attempt to deescalate a threatening situation? Or was he making fun of the Native elder by placing his grin inches from the old man’s face?

In an op-ed published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Bishop Stowe reframed the debate by adopting the prophetic tack I just mentioned. He focused on the fact that the young student and many of his companions were wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats. That’s what the bishop found incompatible with Catholic faith and its comprehensive approach to life-issues.

He wrote:   

“Without engaging the discussion about the context of the viral video or placing the blame entirely on these adolescents, it astonishes me that any students participating in a pro-life activity on behalf of their school and their Catholic faith could be wearing apparel sporting the slogans of a president who denigrates the lives of immigrants, refugees and people from countries that he describes with indecent words and haphazardly endangers with life-threatening policies.”

In other words, Bishop Stowe was broadening the concept of being “pro-life” – the reason many Catholics back President Trump – to question that support itself. Catholic faith, the bishop implied, cannot tolerate Trump’s policies on immigration, refugees or other words or actions that disrespect Global South countries and endanger life (think capital punishment, drone assassinations, bombings, and illegal wars). Such behavior offends core Catholic beliefs about the inviolable sanctity of human life.

Specifically in reference to abortion, the Lexington bishop added:

“As the leader of the Catholic Church in the 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky . . . I believe that U.S. Catholics must take a look at how our support of the fundamental right to life has become separated from the even more basic truth of the dignity of each human person. . .  While the church’s opposition to abortion has been steadfast, it has become a stand-alone issue for many and has become disconnected to other issues of human dignity.”

Still referencing the abortion issue, Bishop Stowe concluded:

“The pro-life movement claims that it wants more than the policy change of making abortion illegal but aims to make it unthinkable. That would require deep changes in society and policies that would support those who find it difficult to afford children. The association of our young people with racist acts and a politics of hate must also become unthinkable.”

Notice how these words unabashedly connect President Trump with racism and policies that embody hatred. They also recognize that many women are driven to abortion by government policies that make unplanned pregnancies problematic.

Now, that brings me to this Sunday’s Gospel reading and to Jesus’ words that “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” I make the connection because dozens of people chose to comment very harshly on the bishop’s op-ed. Instead of dealing with the more comprehensive understanding of the phrase “pro-life,” they called Bishop Stowe vile names, brought up the pedophilia issue, and defended Donald Trump as God’s servant. I was surprised that some of the on-line language was actually permitted by the Herald-Leader’s editors.

It was like what happened to Jesus in today’s reading. There the Master himself is pilloried by his neighbors in Nazareth for challenging (like Bishop Stowe) their narrow religious prejudices. When Jesus reminds the people from Nazareth that God cares as much about Syrians and Lebanese as about Jews, they actually try to murder him.

As I said, that proved the truth of his saying that “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” After all, prophets are those who speak for God. They connect God’s word to events of the day. And that’s what John Stowe did in his op-ed. He made the connection not only between the teaching of Jesus on the one hand and the event in Washington on the other. Echoing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church, he also used the occasion to denounce Catholic support for latter-day fascism.

In similar circumstances 85 years ago, Bonhoeffer and the German Confessing Church courageously published their famous Barmen Declaration. It held that no one professing to follow Jesus could possibly accept Hitler as their Fuhrer; only Christ could hold that position.

In response, both Protestants and Catholics denounced Bonhoeffer and the others as traitors. Pope Pius XII would even persist in endorsing Hitler as “an indispensable bulwark against the Russians.”

The words of Bishop Stowe seem intent on preventing Catholics in his diocese from recommitting a similar error.

As a long-time Kentuckian and member of the loyal opposition within the Catholic Church, I’m proud of his courage. It’s time for Catholics and the rest of us to take Bishop Stowe’s words seriously.

Simply put, people of faith cannot support Donald Trump and still be authentic followers of Jesus. We must do all we can to frustrate Trump’s policies and see that he is not elected to a second term.

Yes, Bishop Stowe is correct: it’s a matter of faith!

Bishop Stowe Is Sending Us a Message by Attending Oscar Romero Celebration

Stowe

(This is the first in a three-part series on our parish’s upcoming celebration of the beatification of San Oscar Romero which will take place on May 23rd. The event will be observed in St. Clare’s parish on June 3rd, when our new bishop, John Stowe, will join us.)

As one of the first acts of his new Episcopate, Bishop John Stowe will be visiting my parish, St. Clare’s in Berea, Kentucky, to celebrate the beatification of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was gunned down at the altar on March 24, 1980.

In accepting the invitation to join the celebration, then bishop-elect Stowe wrote:

“Oscar Romero is a great inspiration in my life and I am thrilled to know of a community that wishes to celebrate his witness.”  

Bishop Stowe’s words and his decision to attend the celebration are freighted with meaning for Catholics of the Lexington Diocese. They speak volumes about Bishop Stowe’s overriding commitment to social justice. The bishop’s words call our attention not only to the person of Oscar Romero, but to the theology that informed his life, and to our vocation as followers of Jesus the Christ.

In today’s posting, think about Oscar Romero himself. (Subsequent blogs – next Wednesday and the following Monday – will focus on liberation theology as it relates to Romero, and then on practical responses to the archbishop’s beatification).

Oscar Romero was born in 1917. Like our present pope, Francis, he was a Jesuit. Monsignor Romero entered the seminary at the age of 13 and was ordained at 26. He studied in Rome, and received his doctorate in theology there from the Gregorian University. In 1977, he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador.

The monsignor was a bookish man – very traditional, both politically and religiously speaking. He was a conservative in every sense of the word.

However, a turning point came for Oscar Romero less than a month after his consecration as San Salvador’s 4th archbishop. A close friend of his – another Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande – was assassinated by one of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads. Rutilio Grande was an advocate of the poor, an opponent of government oppression of the peasants and workers, and an advocate of radical theology. He saw Jesus as a prophet – the Son of God bringing good news to the poor.

Romero’s own words reveal the impact of Grande’s death. He said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'” The “they” Archbishop Romero referred to was his own government, its military, and their backers in the United States.

In other words, the penny had dropped for the archbishop. He realized that his country and all of Central America was at war. It was what Noam Chomsky called “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It pitted the United States of America and its right wing allies in Central America against the Catholic Church.

But as Romero said in a speech at the Universite Catholicque in Louvain, Belgium, just before his martyrdom, the U.S. war wasn’t against the entire Catholic Church.  Or as the archbishop himself put it,

“. . . (I)t is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.”

In other words, the archbishop had put his finger on the problem: the Catholic Church was divided between the traditionalists who supported the rich, unfettered capitalism, and U.S. Empire on the one hand, and those who took the part of the poor on the other. Grande’s death convinced the archbishop that he had been on the wrong side. So he switched over and took the part of the poor. In doing so, he in effect signed his own death warrant.

Nevertheless, he began speaking out fearlessly each Sunday against his country’s government, its military, and their supporters in the United States. He railed against El Salvador’s endemic poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. He specifically criticized the United States for the military aid it gave to El Salvador’s repressive military government.

President Carter ignored the archbishop’s pleas to stop arming El Salvador’s military and death squads. And when he entered office, President Reagan doubled down on his predecessor’s policy.

Still, Archbishop Romero continued to follow faithfully Rutilio Grande’s path. His weekly radio programs became a sensation throughout El Salvador. He named names and listed the disappeared, tortured, murdered and much more. The archbishop’s broadcasts became the main source of trustworthy news for his oppressed people.

As a result, death threats from the White Hand death squad came to him every day. But such intimidation didn’t work on Oscar Romero.

Finally, though, on March 24, 1980, the chickens came home to roost. In a crime intellectually authored by Roberto D’aubuisson, a darling of U.S. Central American policy, the archbishop was assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist in a convent in San Salvador.

The country was plunged into mourning. 250,000 people attended Archbishop Romero’s funeral. However, only one of the country’s bishops attended his funeral. The others considered him too radical and politicized. They stayed home.

The Salvadoran army however did not. Death squad sharpshooters terrorized the funeral, dropping smoke bombs and killing anywhere from 30 to 50 people while wounding many others. It was a world-class scandal.

But it was by no means the end of the war against the Catholic Church. The White Hand death squad continued to follow its slogan, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

Less than a month after Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom, four U.S. women religious (all from Cleveland, Ohio) were brutally raped and murdered: Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan. Then in 1989, a team of six Jesuit liberation theologians at the Central American University along with their housekeep and her 15 year old daughter were slaughtered by Salvadoran soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.

By the war’s end, scores of priests were killed along with lay ministers of the word, teachers, social workers, and union organizers. In 1980 alone, more than 11,000 such activists fell victim to the death squads. By the war’s end, more than 70,000 Salvadorans had been killed by their own government. Imagine the impact of such numbers in a small country of just over 6 million people.